Thursday, December 30, 2010

LOGICOMIX by Doxiadis et al.

LOGICOMIX is an entertaining and compelling graphic novel (of historical fiction) that explores Bertrand Russell's quest for certainty and mathematical truth. I found it stimulating, amusing and hard to put down. The subject matter is fascinating (Is there Truth? Can Math be a foundation for it?) and it was nice to see the usual suspects: Whitehead, Hilbert, Poincaré, Wittgenstein and Gödel. Initially I didn't like a meta-perspective about the creation of the book, but I came to see it as a useful device to discuss the angle that was being taken.

In summation, I liked this so much and the format was so accessible, that I wish it just kept going, that I could keep reading about truth, limitations on knowledge, logic, reason and human relations and the work was far longer than several hundred pages.

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Freedom by Jonathan Franzen

(Unfinished ~ 18%)
Disappointing! After hearing so many wonderful things about Franzen, Freedom was quite a let down. While it started off decently, I didn't care about the plot or the characters, and I didn't find the writing noteworthy.  I know it is supposed to be satirical and paint a dark portrait about (or hang a useful mirror to) American life, but the work was not sufficiently interesting for me to even finish it.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

xkcd: volume 0 by Randall Munroe

For the uninitiated, xkcd is "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language" that quirky, smart, occasionally touching and quite popular.  The drawings are usually stick people or larger graphs/images that explore the main themes. This book is a collection of the comic and it was very enjoyable. I appreciate the comic because I generally get all the romance, sarcasm, language and some of the math. The problem is that 'math' might be more accurately replaced by 'computer science/programming.' This problem was amplified by the collected works which have many extra goodies in them, but a large chunk are computer programming references/eggs that I just don't have the background for. That said, the commentary on each strip was a nice touch and fun to read.
My second main criticism is that it was too short! Come on, man! We know the stuff is available free on the web and your intro sounds like you don't need tons of revenue from putting out several smaller books, so why not make it thicker?
I would say buy this if you are a big fan but if you're unsure or more frugal, just read the original strips on the website

Something related to the book but not usually part of a review was the publisher. As it said on the inside pages: "The book is published by BreadPig, a company founded by my friend Alexis, and their portion of the profits will go to build a school in Laos through the charity Room to Read."
Well, isn't that great?

Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There by Lewis Carroll

(Unfinished  ~50%)
After being unimpressed by Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, I thought I would give Through the Looking Glass a chance, both for balance and for learning about cultural references. I only made it halfway through before deciding, reluctantly, to leave it unfinished. There was more wordplay, some of which was quite enjoyable, but the story wasn't intriguing. The work seems a little more sophisticated than Wonderland as many aspects of the story are structured in reference to movements on a chess board. Yet... meh.
I did read about Tweedle Dee and Tweedle Dum, and Humpty Dumpty saying words mean what he wants them to mean, but there just wasn't enough to justify the investment.
Can't recommend this one.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Earth (the book) by The Daily Show Writers

Concisely, if you liked America (the book) and/or The Daily Show with Jon Stewart and/or The Onion, you’ll like this book.
A sign of excellent comedic writing is the ability to be humourous and intelligent in 8-10 words. The Daily Show writers manage to achieve this on every page of this fake encyclopedia of Earth (with a focus on humans). Wry observations, quirky analyses and some laugh out loud social commentary fill this book.
While tempting to excerpt some of my faves, I don’t want to ruin any of the jokes.
Just go read it.

Thursday, December 16, 2010

Thank You, Jeeves by P.G. Wodehouse

Wodehouse delights once again in another excellent book about English gentleman Bertrand Wooster and his gentleman’s gentlemen, Jeeves. This is the fourth Jeeves & Wooster book I’ve finished, but the first full length novel as the other three were collections of short stories. I had wondered if Wodehouse would be able to carry off a novel length tale, but my concerns were unfounded. Not only does it fulfill in the way the short stories do, but it flows quite nicely. Once again, the reader is provided with amusing situations, quirky but endearing characters, and charming yet witty dialogue. 
The superb vocal delivery by J. Cecil must be acknowledged and praised. One could say, “J. Cecil, you stand alone.”
(minor spoiler alert)
A modern reader, though likely to enjoy this work, probably won’t be able to be unsurprised when part of the story involved black musicians and some white characters end up in black face. Such a thing generally wouldn’t fly nowadays so it was an educational experience to imaging this being simply amusing and not offensive to previous audiences. I believe these “signs of the times” are very useful to understanding how various societies have changed over time (thankfully often for the better).

Finally, I’ll mention that I happily have Cecil’s accents and Wodehouse’s dialogue pattern rolling around in my head. Carry on!
Highly recommended.

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

An insightful and disheartening, but not harrowing, description of one man’s day in a Russian prison camp (or Gulag as they came to be known). The book is not plot driven, nor about extensive personal reflections and shared introspections, but more of an exploration of the conditions of Ivan’s life, the conditions of the Gulag.
The reader comes to sympathize with Ivan’s plight, his near constant thoughts of food acquisition and avoidance of physical punishment. That said, the book is less depressing than anticipated because Ivan isn’t in agony. I imagine this could be due to a selection bias whereby the prisoners that have lasted 8 years have in some odd way, come to terms with the absurdity of their situation.  
Numerous passages were significant, but here are four that stood out:

“How can you expect a man who’s warm to understand one who’s cold.” (p.23)

“Wonder of wonders! How time flew when you were working! That was something he’d often noticed. The days rolled by in the camp – they were over before you could say ‘knife’. But the years, they never rolled by: they never moved by a second.”  (p. 56)

“Does it bother you to wear a number? They don’t weigh anything, those numbers” (p. 60)

“He supped without bread… the bread would do for tomorrow. The belly is a rascal. It doesn’t remember how well you treated it yesterday, it’ll cry out for more tomorrow.”

Friday, December 10, 2010

War by Sebastian Junger

If you are seeking an embedded reporter’s experiences of living alongside US troops in Afghanistan (without much analysis of the war itself) you probably can’t do too much better than Junger’s War.
As I don’t feel like writing the summary, I’ve cut and pasted the following paragraph from the Review (which also has a decent interview). My thoughts are below the review:
Junger spent 14 months in 2007–2008 intermittently embedded with a platoon of the 173rd Airborne brigade in Afghanistan's Korengal Valley, one of the bloodiest corners of the conflict. The soldiers are a scruffy, warped lot, with unkempt uniforms—they sometimes do battle in shorts and flip-flops—and a ritual of administering friendly beatings to new arrivals, but Junger finds them to be superlative soldiers. Junger experiences everything they do—nerve-racking patrols, terrifying roadside bombings and ambushes, stultifying weeks in camp when they long for a firefight to relieve the tedium. Despite the stress and the grief when buddies die, the author finds war to be something of an exalted state: soldiers experience an almost sexual thrill in the excitement of a firefight—a response Junger struggles to understand—and a profound sense of commitment to subordinating their self-interests to the good of the unit. Junger mixes visceral combat scenes—raptly aware of his own fear and exhaustion—with quieter reportage and insightful discussions of the physiology, social psychology, and even genetics of soldiering. Copyright © Reed Business Information
The following are points/parts of the book that I thought noteworthy:
  • Before upcoming combat enlisted men have less stress than officers (this is thought to be because the enlisted men are actually seeking combat more than the officers).
  • Portrayals of soldiers are generally positive, despite many having troubled pasts. Additionally, they are described as having little introspection, and of a sense of power/invincibility.
  • Junger describes how the military assesses the “human terrain” and actually superimposes this map on a map of the physical terrain, and progress in both is measured box by box on the gridlines.
  • One old Afghan man thought one of the US soldiers was a Russian that never left(!)
  • The Afghan code of protection indicates that if you come to someone or their residence, they have to take you in. (While speaking positively about this code, Junger could have mentioned that that is why they didn’t give up Osama bin Laden… but he didn’t).
  • Generally speaking, during a battle fear is not an issue due to surging adrenaline. The measure of courage should be those action and thoughts before combat.
  • Junger talks about the silly machismo about denial of exhaustion and weakness. Of course, most military operations, especially infantry, rely upon strength and endurance, so a disdain of weakness makes some sense. The problem is when this ends up denying the reality of and problems associated with PTSD (and perhaps even physical actions that may only harm the individual later in life).
  • Military is about units and groups, not individuals, that must function as a team to survive.
  • Junger had no censorship whatsoever (but he could admit that he had to be approved first so chances are they are expecting a certain perspective). He does acknowledge how entirely dependent he is on the army for everything he has and how he survives (clothes, food, shelter, protection, transportation).
  • Most areas of Afghanistan are/were relatively stable.
  • An interesting point was Junger’s observation that many in the military are engaged in collective wishful thinking. If you are on the front lines you typically don’t think about the wider war, why it happened and if it is being won. Alternatively, if you are in large base removed from frequent combat, you tend to be more optimistic as you are not watching people die nor being shot at.
  • War is about getting the enemy into a position where you can kill them from a safe distance.
  • Junger describes how all too often survival comes down to luck; the good die as easily as the bad.  I think of this as a direct experience of the injustice of the world.
  • War is exciting, but no one really talks about this. Soldiers might end up talking to their spouse, chaplain, or shrink, but such realities are not for public consumption. A man in his early 20s getting to shoot big guns brings out primal feelings of excitement and ecstasy. Later, these feelings might turn to sorrow, but in battle, soldiers are almost like a drug user taking a hit. When the high of battle has run out, one is left one bitter and dissatisfied.
  • When Junger realizes that he could have been killed if a bomb was detonated a fraction of a second later (making a difference of 10 ft) he had trouble coming to terms with the near arbitrarity of his continuing existence. “The idea that so much could be determined by so little was sort of intolerable, it made all of life terrifying.”
  • One of my fav lines involves Junger describing a particular type of weapon that, once fired, can have its projectile guided by a user. Each “shot” costs 80,000 dollars.  This weapon is fired by someone who doesn’t make that in at year, at a guy who will never make that in a lifetime.

Recommended for what it is.

Sunday, December 05, 2010

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll

I thought it would be interesting to read Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland because I have no memory of ever reading it, although I imagine someone read it to me, and I know I’ve seen the Disney movie many years ago. Additionally, cultural references abound about the White Rabbit and the Queen and the Mad Hatter (which, amusingly, makes me think of Batman).
To be honest, I was disappointed. So much so, that I began to wonder exactly why Alice in Wonderland became one of the most popular stories of the past 150 years. Perhaps it was more radical and original at the time? Maybe plays and the movie were key aspects of its success? Anyway, while it was a fantastical world, it wasn’t as peculiar as I anticipated. There was some decent wordplay, but not that much, and it could have been more sophisticated and witty. There were some morals, but I expected a larger parable (or many smaller ones) and some endearing life lessons.
Yes, I know it is a children's book but it seems I expected a bit more, especially given its length, like what one gets from some of Dr. Seuss’s works or The Little Prince. That said, it was a worthwhile read if only to be aware of the actual text that was the source of so many cultural references. (I think I'll check out the animated movie in the next little while to see how it was presented there)

Death of a Salesman by Arthur Miller

Narrative fantasies collide with harsh realities in this disheartening play about how terrible middle-class failure and familial conflict can be. Death of a Salesman is an aversive play about how a man has been worn down by his dreary job and unattained dreams. The play succeeds in presentation, but I don’t know if I would recommend it as it is disheartening. I listened to an audio presentation and sometimes I thought “there’s just so much yelling!”
The play seems to be about the difference between who we are and who we could be, either in our mind’s or the minds of others.
Only recommend for those who do not mind depressing plays or that just want to know what this famous work is all about (which was my motivation).